The title of this photo is “Sleep of the Innocent”. It was taken by Maxwell Hamilton @FlickrCC in November of 2013. These farm yard pigs are associated with Hounslow Urban Farm.
There are some new and gradual trends emerging in livestock production and consumption. More corporate consumers are requiring humane sources for their pigs, poultry, and cattle. The grass fed beef industry is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year. Ethanol policy and the drought’s impact on livestock is culling herds and the rancher or pasture owner is considering switching to more resilient goats and sheep and the hardiest breeds of cattle. Cattle are implicated by land use and greenhouse emissions critics. And the consumer is eating less meat. These trends are happening not for just one reason, but for a variety of reasons.
NOTE: Thank you to Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee for allowing me to use their writing which follows.
Over a century ago, a journalist obtained employment in the meatpacking industry in Chicago intending to draw attention to the deplorable working conditions. When Upton Sinclair’s book, “The Jungle” was finally published, the public reacted not to the conditions endured by the workers, but to diseased cattle and the lack of sanitation in an industry that provided the meat they ate.
Today we see the same sort of activism surrounding the meat industry. The differences between the two eras are mostly a matter of technology. Sinclair used a pen and paper and serialized his findings in a socialist newspaper before getting it accepted as a self-funded novel. Today, the tools are hidden video cameras and videos posted to the internet where some of them go viral.
No less than in Upton Sinclair’s day, the battle today is an ideological one. He was a socialist hoping to end wage slavery; concern about tainted meat was the public’s interest. Today’s videographers issues range from the humane treatment of animals to making the eating of meat unpalatable to a large swath of the US public. For those concerned about animal welfare, the target audience is typically consumers who will pressure large restaurant and grocery chains to set standards for the meat/egg/milk products they sell.
One hundred years ago, the result of the work of Sinclair and other muckrakers was the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Today, state legislators debate ways to make it illegal for workers to surreptitiously make videos in meat production facilities.
The problem with legislation that aims to punish today’s muckrakers is that it makes the meat industry look like it has something to hide. And, that only makes matters worse for everyone, all of the way back to the cow-calf operator.
If consumers think the industry has something to hide, they will switch products. With today’s emphasis on a diet that includes a variety of whole grains, the only thing consumers have to do is add a complement of pulses and they can consume all of the essential amino acids needed for full protein utilization in humans—no meat or animal products needed.
As recently reported on the Drovers Cattle Network, Colorado State University and the Colorado Beef Council sponsored a “conference titled “Beef + Transparency = Trust.” In an article, “Trust through transparency—Part 3,” Drovers Managing Editor John Maday wrote, “Temple Grandin, known worldwide for her work in animal behavior and handling, told the group that if the livestock industry needs to show the public what they do. And if there is something we are unwilling to show, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
As economists, we agree. The availability of complete-as-possible information to all market participants is a key expectation for economic transactions in free market economies. Information restrictions of all kinds are indefensible and totally foreign to the perfectly competitive models ascribed to by economists.
In this case one could argue that detailed information from producers, along with the reasons for practices, would provide a more balanced and real-world window into livestock production than an agenda-driven, highly-edited video that goes viral on the internet. As Maday writes, “Our challenge is [providing] the context in which members of the public see things. To someone with no background or experience in agriculture, processes or activities done for good reasons and considered acceptable within the industry could seem distressing.”
Our only caution is that what is acceptable changes over time. When a quarter’s worth of gas would get one an evening cruising the town square or strip, car mileage that was acceptable in the 1950s is no longer acceptable to consumers. Likewise there are animal husbandry practices that were acceptable within the industry at one time that are no longer considered appropriate. Just as carmakers have adjusted to a changing market, livestock producers and handlers may have no choice but to do the same.
In addition to transparency and adapting to a changing market, the industry has to be willing to speak out against bad actors, both companies and workers. For companies it may involve establishing a third-party verification process that includes standards that are developed with consumer input. For workers, it certainly involves training and supervision to ensure company policies with regard to animal welfare are adhered to. It also necessitates whistle-blower protection for workers who report being asked by supervisors to violate company policies.
Livestock producers and handlers are not used to being criticized for their animal husbandry. Their initial defensive responses to these criticisms might have felt appropriate early on, but could do long-term harm to the industry’s credibility and growth potential. Programs like Colorado’s “Beef + Transparency = Trust” seem to point the way to a defensible (and perhaps more profitable) posture for the livestock industry.
1. PURPLE PASSION ASPARAGUS
Photo credit: Gardener’s Supply
The best gardeners in my area are “passionate” about this asparagus variety and can’t seem to get enough of it into the ground fast enough. It is tasty, sweet, nutty, plump, and extra-tender, lacking strings like regular asparagus. Because it is so tender and sweet, and the uncooked purple color is so attractive, it is used fresh in salads or eaten raw as a snack. This variety is a prolific producer and can be harvested for eight weeks. Note that it loses its purple color and turns green if cooked. This variety was discovered in a small village near the southern Alps, and then perfected over nine years, according to Miller Nurseries. You might want to add it to your own garden this spring — if you are lucky enough to find some, that is.
2. MORE AND MORE CORN
The USDA’s March 30th Prospective Plantings report has created quite a stir with its estimates for this coming season. The cure for high prices is high prices, although that phrase was thought up before the ICE (internal combustion engine) was instructed to eat corn.
Corn growers intend to plant 95.9 million acres of corn for all purposes in 2012, up 4 percent from last year and 9 percent higher than in 2010. If realized, this will represent the highest planted acreage in the United States since 1937 when an estimated 97.2 million acres were planted.
Analysts are very concerned about dry soil conditions in the corn belt, the driest since 1975 in NW Iowa.
2012 Prospective Plantings USDA Report:
Corn Planted Acreage Up 4% [Up 9% from 2010]
Soybean Acreage Down 1% [Down 5% from 2010]
All Wheat Acreage Up 3%
All Cotton Acreage Down 11%
Sorghum Up 9%
Oats Up 15%
Barley Up 30%
Winter Wheat Up 3%
Durum Wheat Up 62%
Other Wheat Down 3%
Rice Down 5%
Hay Up 3% [From a record low last year]
Peanuts Up 25%
Sunflower Up 17%
Canola Up 45%
Flaxseed Up 62% [Down 31% from 2010]
Sugarbeets Up 1%
Tobacco Down 2%
Sweet Potatoes Down 1%
Dry Beans Up 38% [Down 13% from 2010]
Lentils Up 21%
Dry edible peas Up 71% [Down 18% from 2010]
Austrian winter peas Up 17%
3. MOTHER EARTH NEWS RURAL PROPERTY FOR SALE
Did you know that the Mother Earth News website lists land for sale? You can search by using a variety of criteria including price, size, and location. For fun, I selected this property pictured above, because it is an area that I am familiar with and quite fond of. It is in the Loess Hills region of Iowa, just East of the Missouri River. For sale is 48 acres with a lake and cornfield in Woodbury County. The price is $242,000. A spring fed pond is 20 feet deep and 15 acres in size, adjacent to the Little Sioux River. This is sold as a hunting property but it just might make a great small farm. Ironically, what historically has been shunned as marginal farmland in this nation, some might consider most desirable today because that land is still in its most natural state.
4. MUTATING MANURE
This photo is from the Minnesota Extension Service of a hog barn with foaming manure, after an explosion. Its roof blew off and settled back down.
Scientists in the Midwest are trying to determine what is causing the dangerous recent phenomena of an explosive foam created by manure pits of hog confinement operations. This foam, which was first seen four-five years ago, is rapid-growing with a mucous-like texture and it traps large amounts of methane gas beneath it. The foam can reach a thickness of four feet. So far, it has been found in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. A half-dozen barns have exploded as a result of this new foam, killing thousands of hogs, injuring workers, and causing millions of dollars in damages. In a Minnesota study of 200 operations, it found that one out of four had the new dangerous foam. One explanation is that a new filamentous bacteria has developed in recent years from a change in the hog pit’s environment. Scientists are looking at what has changed in the past several years and possible causes include the hog dietary change which now includes DDGS’s, or a new bacteria resulting from antibiotics found in the DDGS or hog feed. Pundits are having a field day with this story, as you might guess, and saying that Mother Nature has issued a verdict on factory farming after She read the now famous “Boss Hog” story out of Rolling Stone magazine. A recent Discover magazine article put it this way, “we can’t entirely blame a microbe for the problem, after all, it wasn’t they who devised the policy that seems to be giving us tons of excess DDGS and explosive, methane-filled foam.”
5. THE ONION TAKES DOWN GOURMET COOKING SHOWS
U.S. hog producers broke through the 10-pigs-per litter barrier in the March-May 2011 quarter, according to the latest count. Averaging 10.03 pigs per litter, the U.S. hog production industry is now positioned to possibly eliminate Canadian hog producers’ longstanding litter-rate lead. U.S. litter rates have trended upward for more than two decades due to widespread adoption of technologies that have improved animal handling procedures, breeding methods, and nutritional composition. Technological innovations contributing to larger litters, superior survival rates, and improved weaned-pig numbers are both a cause and a consequence of the hog industry’s move from a very large number of small operations to a relatively small number of very large, specialized operations.
Poultry’s share of world meat production has steadily increased, while beef’s share has declined. The changing composition of global meat production has affected the amount and kind of feed used. Poultry production is the most efficient animal industry at converting grain and protein meal into meat. Pork, however, continues to account for the largest share of world meat production, with China producing half of the world’s pork. Industrial hog farming techniques that rely on feed rations with high levels of corn and protein meal are becoming more common. World cattle production has slowly turned toward more intensive feeding systems as well, which use more grain and protein meal.